Colorado - 2001
Back in the seventies I needed a communications expert, and with the help of a headhunter I found Larry. He bravely abandoned the fleshpots of America to come and work with me in Coventry, and during the next two and a half years we became good friends. In the summer of 2001 we visited him and his wife Diana in Denver, and took advantage of the opportunity to explore a little of the beautiful state of Colorado.
This area is a mile above sea level and the summer weather is hot and very dry. Step out of the shower and you are dry almost before you've had time to comb your hair. However, most of our holiday evenings included a spectacular thunder storm over the mountains, and when it rained it really meant business. The USA seems to do everything in a big way, and Colorado weather is no exception.
The Southern Rockies
After a couple of days acclimatisation the four of us set off on a circular tour of the southern Rockies, encompassing the Royal Gorge, Durango, Silverton, Telluride, Aspen and Leadville. While driving in the area I was struck by three impressions - most of the vehicles were SUVs (sport utility vehicles to the uninitiated); speed limits are surprisingly well observed; the predominant rule of the road is 'every man for himself'. However, long distance driving is undemanding and delays outside the cities are rare. So we were able to see a number of spectacular sights in a relatively short time.
The suspension bridge across the 1000 foot deep Royal Gorge is reputedly the highest in the world. I'm not sure why it was built as it does not seem to lead anywhere, but as a platform for viewing the natural beauty of the Rockies it takes some beating. Beside the bridge there is a cable car across the gorge and a very steep ratchet railway which takes you to the bottom, where intrepid white water rafters and feeding humming birds complete the experience. We survived a scary cable car ride to take some photographs, but had to walk back when the wind became too strong for it to operate.
The town of Durango on the western slope proved to be a great centre for touring. One of our most spectacular trips was riding a steam train through the mountains to the old mining town of Silverton, and then taking a jeep ride up narrow dirt tracks to get a magnificent view from 13,000 feet. All the alpine flowers were in full bloom, patches of snow were still around, and the vista seemed to stretch for ever.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that everywhere was so uncrowded, despite being a spectacularly beautiful area at the height of summer. The main resort towns were certainly full of people, but once up in the mountains it was possible to enjoy much of the scenery in splendid isolation. Old mine workings were preserved, but not presented simply as a tourist experience. Disused houses had been left largely untouched and alpine flowers remained untrodden and unpicked.
Maybe the vastness of the place helps to maintain its unspoilt nature. However, in a world of relentless and ever increasing tourism, it was a pleasure to enjoy nature and peep into history largely alone and without the ubiquitous guided tour.
The city of Denver was a pleasant surprise. It has a spacious and relaxed atmosphere about it, without the formality and pretensions of many other capital cities. As the state of Colorado was celebrating its 125th anniversary during our visit, it follows that Denver has only a short history. However, the civic buildings and public spaces are elegant and beautifully kept, and to our European eyes the locals showed a good deal more respect for their heritage than we are used to back home.
People smiled, provided helpful directions, offered good service in restaurants and shops, and generally gave the visitor that elusive feel good factor. We reciprocated by smiling back - and spending our money.
Garden of the Gods
Although I once had a pilot's licence, I do not like heights. Elsa is much more relaxed about such things, and was keen to renew her ballooning experience. She won! On the last day of our holiday we took a hot air balloon ride over the Rockies - it was magic.
We arose at 4.45 am for a six o'clock rendezvous, because apparently balloons fly best at dawn. It took less than half an hour to unpack the equipment, rig the basket, check the burner, inflate the envelope and away. Everything seems to happen in slow motion. There is a quiet stillness about floating along above the ground, punctuated only by the periodic raucous blast of the burner which keeps you there. Just the two of us and Frank, our pilot, suspended in a basket not much bigger than a water butt. In the clear morning air you could see, and hear, for miles.
Steering a balloon depends on finding a height where the wind is blowing in the required direction, an instinctive skill aptly demonstrated by Frank. If the wind does not oblige, then you must hang about (literally) until it does. We rose gently up one side of a mountain ridge, cleared the top rather closer than I would have chosen, then made a sharp right to follow the deer before turning full circle and returning the way we came. It is much like gliding, where you must coax co-operation from the elements rather than try to impose on them.
After about twenty minutes I began to feel more at home, even letting go of the rigging with both hands to take photographs! Air travel rarely allows you time to observe properly, and then only from behind glass. In a balloon you have no such problems. Wildlife is largely unaware, you can look in any direction, no-one gets in your way and there is ample time to study the landscape carefully. The only thing you can't do is take a picture of your own balloon!
As we neared the end of our flight Frank began to consider the landing. When the appropriate wind direction proved unavailable, he rested the basket gently against the mountain side and waited. I became all too aware of the steepness of the slope, the proximity of the electricity pylons, and the length of our potential walk to civilisation. At the appropriate moment he blasted the burner and we rose into an obliging airstream which took us to our gentle touchdown.
Our ground crew, three enthusiastic high school students, quickly dismantled the balloon and returned us to the Montgolfier Launch Site for a champagne breakfast. That afternoon we were on our way home, with the Balloonists' Prayer still fresh in our memories:
The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
that God has joined you in your laughter.
And He has set you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.